The Smithsonian Institution will sign a formal agreement today with the government of Malaysia to provide a basis for future cooperation in natural and cultural history and conservation.

This marks the first formal agreement between the institution and the Malaysian government, according to Zaihan Mahmud, information counselor at the Malaysian Embassy, although both parties had worked together in the past.

The agreement says that collaborative research between Malaysia and the institution "will lead to fellowships, international symposia, exhibitions and performance programs and printed and electronic publications in English and Bahasa Malaysia (the official language of Malaysia)."

Proposed exchanges would include projects concerned with historical sites, monuments and artifacts, the quality of the natural environment, endangered natural species and living human cultures.

Robert McC. Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian, will sign on behalf of the institution and Dato' Lew Sip Hon, Malaysian ambassador to the United States, will sign on behalf of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

The agreement is the result of efforts of former Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who initiated the idea when he visited Malaysia prior to his retirement last year, Dato' Lew said. "This agreement symbolizes the desire and willingness of Malaysia and the United States to enter into even closer relationships in cultural and scholarly cooperation," Dato' Lew said.

Zaihan said the proposed exchange in research will not be restricted to Smithsonian scholars but will be open to other American academicians as well.

He said American scholars interested in doing research in Malaysia previously had to submit applications to be processed by the Foreign and Information ministries and the National Archives.

The time taken for processing depended on the type of research, Zaihan said. "The more complicated it was, the longer it took. Now they just have to go to the Smithsonian."

A spokesman for the International Service Office said the Smithsonian's dealings with Malaysia have been mostly in biological sciences, anthropology and architecture. He views the agreement as "the first formal step in the development of an international network of cultural and scientific organization."

He said the relationship will enable the Smithsonian "to pay attention to those parts of the world which are sadly neglected."

"We hope to change it with the development of the Quadrangle and the Directorate of International Activities," the spokesman said. He said the agreement could lead to a possible display of Malaysian art in the United States.

"Exhibitions grow out of research, rather than precede it," he added. "It is urgent to record the cultural heritage and preserve the natural environment." He said the program for 1988 will include a research study on the ecosystem between man and tropical rain forests, of interest to Malaysian scholars.

Kennedy Schmertz, director of the office of service and protocol of the Directorate of International Activities, said the Smithsonian has worked with the Sabah Forest Department on several projects on earthworm ecology, elephants and captive propagation of the proboscis monkey.

He said the department of entymology of the Museum of Natural History has undertaken extensive collections in the Kinabalu National Park in Sabah.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama has long had an interest in collaboration with Malaysian institutions, he said.